How can something so beautiful be so unfulfilling?
It’s surprising that Aimee Mann doesn’t get more work on soundtracks, especially given the acclaim she received for Magnolia, which put her back on the map after she struggled to find her footing post-Til Tuesday. She was set to contribute to a musical based on the classic memoir Girl, Interrupted, but, like many projects over the past year, it was, well, interrupted by the pandemic. Mann took the scraps from her work on the musical and recontextualized them into Queens of the Summer Hotel. Despite its lovely music, the content within doesn’t add enough to this familiar tale, and its 15 songs run together with a lack of anything truly visceral or dramatic.
Queens of the Summer Hotel, like her previous record, Mental Illness, hones in on the somber, more down-tempo side of Mann’s music. There’s none of the Sheryl Crow-esque country-rock edge that characterized Lost in Space or The Forgotten Arm. But while Mental Illness went for gauzy guitars to forge that sad mood, Queens of the Summer Hotel is dominated by pianos, flutes and strings, which isn’t surprising given its origins as a musical. “Burn It Out” is the only track with an obvious acoustic guitar.
Suffice to say, the record is nothing short of stunning on a musical level, right from the opener, “You Fall,” with its shuddering strings and pretty vocal arrangements. Every piano note, bursts of air from a flute and haunting violin stroke sounds crisp and lively. Mann’s husky tone is a perfect match, and the multi-tracking and harmonies are just as pristine. There are enough gentle taps of percussion to give these songs momentum, and the theatrical deliveries on “Little Chameleon” and “In Mexico,” as well as the marching-band tempo of “Give Me Fifteen,” keep it from feeling like dirge after dirge. It could use a bit more variety, maybe letting another instrument besides the piano take center stage like on “Burn It Out,” but there’s still something cinematic and transportive about each of these tracks—they likely would’ve killed on stage.
But music is only part of the listening experience, and sadly, Mann’s lyrics don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Girl, Interrupted’s story of a woman’s horrific experience in a mental hospital serves as a great concept for an album, and as expected, Mann brings her trademark wry sense of humor and understatement to its themes of suicide and gender equality. The title itself is a typical Mann turn of phrase, comparing a trip to the ward to being the guest of honor at a luxurious resort.
There are moments where this dark humor works. “You’re a balloon, and all the world’s a pin” from “You’re Lost” succinctly provides an image of how it feels to be beaten down by mental illness. “Suicide Is Murder” is the most well-rounded song, examining the ripple effects of taking one’s own life and how it metaphorically murders others. But these are topics that have been discussed in plenty of art since Girl, Interrupted, and Mann’s take on them doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
The chorus of “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath” is an overly literal, uninteresting description of bipolar disorder. “Give Me Fifteen” sounds like a song written for the musical’s villain, flippantly describing the ward’s horrific treatments, yet it never goes over the top enough to work. “You’re Lost” wastes wonderful cooing backing vocals by never going beyond its title with a rather flat hook that does not dive deeper into the sentiment. Every line that works on “You Don’t Have the Room” is negated by another clunker that tries to be poetic but doesn’t come together. “Planting all your seeds but in the dark (No means)/ And though you’re twice as fast, you carry more/ So everything you’re running for, you lose” mixes too many metaphors, undercutting the fascinating theme of the self-fulfilling prophecy that comes from depriving women of the tools needed to be self-sufficient, and then using that as proof of their inferiority.
All this amounts to a series of flat observations on mental illness and sexual discrimination. Additionally, the character portraits suffer against the music, which, while beautiful, can get rather homogeneous, robbing the stories of their own personality. As a musical, these likely would’ve been given greater connective tissue and development. But as it stands, Queens of the Summer Hotel is less than the sum of its gorgeous parts.